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J.C. Ayer & Co. of Lowell, Mass.

Makers of Ayer’s Sarsaparilla, Cherry Pectoral, Cathartic Pills, Hair Vigor, and Ague Cure


Last Modified October 24, 2011



[The following article is in part from an unknown source. It's author states that the sketch of the life of Dr. J.C. Ayer was condensed from an article in the Lowell Courier of July 5, 1878. That July article is in fact J.C. Ayer's obituary. Within the obituary and the above referenced article are dates associated with the introduction of the five major products (Cherry Pectoral, Cathartic Pills, Sarsaparilla, Ague Cure, and Hair Vigor) produced by J.C. Ayer & Co. prior to 1900. These dates appear to be in error but have been left in the text as originally published. The following table provides my revised dates for the introduction of the products and some rational for the revision.]

 

Product

Obit. Date

Revised Date

Revision Reasoning

Cherry Pectoral

1841

1843

First, the 1841 date is the date that J.C. Ayer became the owner of his own apothecary. The obituary states that J.C. had been experimenting with Cherry Pectoral even before he became the owner of his own shop. Generally the 1841 date has been assumed as the initial date of its introduction. It is possible, even probable, that a product like the eventual Cherry Pectoral was sold out of J.C.'s apothecary in 1841 and 1842 but it was most likely a prescription he offered to doctors and customers alike as a solution to throat and lung afflictions when his advice was requested. This product, if it existed, was probably sold in a standard prescription bottle. The product we now know as Cherry Pectoral (manufactured, advertised, distributed as Cherry Pectoral) was probably initiated in 1843. An article in the Hand Book of Business in Lowell, published in 1856 states Cherry Pectoral was introduced in 1843. Ayer had a two page ad in this Hand Book and the author probably had access to J.C. for the article on the company. (More likely the article was provided by J.C. Ayer.) This Hand Book was written while J.C. was still alive and is only 13 plus years away from the actual introduction rather than 35 years for the obituary. Additionally, the obituary is proven wrong for the other products.

Cathartic Pills

1854

1853

An advertisement for Ayer's Cathartic Pills in the Bath [Maine] Daily Mirror dated September 1, 1853 places the product at least into 1853.

Sarsaparilla

1855

1858

Between July 13, 1857 and January 20, 1858, Ayer ran a very novel advertisement in a Lowell newspaper. This ad offered free medicine to individuals with Scrofula, King's Evil and other diseases and symptoms which his Sarsaparilla would eventually claim to cure. Ayer's ad stated: "We have ... valuable remedies for... which we wish to put on trial with the worst of cases, and with intelligent patients who can report their effects." This in effect was an early clinical trial. Four months after these advertisements ended, the earliest known advertisement for Sarsaparilla began in the Lowell Daily Journal and Courier dated May 3, 1858.

Ague Cure

1857

1858

Earliest known advertisement is in the Athens (Ohio)Messenger, Sept 17, 1858. Additionally, invoices which show products being sold have not been found with Ague Cure listed until 1860. The 1860 almanac is the first to mention Ague Cure.

Hair Vigor

1869

1867

An advertisement for Hair Vigor was found in the Lowell Daily Citizen and News dated September 7, 1867. Additional newspapers outside of Lowell have advertisements prior to 1869. It turns out that J.C. Ayer actually obtained a patent on Hair Vigor. The patent number was 73,865 and was dated January 28, 1868. Hair Vigor is the only Ayer health related product ever to have a patent. Promotional documents sent to retailers specifically introducing Hair Vigor also point to the 1867.

A common error exist when dating the introduction of these five major products. The error comes from using the advertising text of the Ayer’s Almanacs. Regrettably the writers of the Almanacs were only interested in stressing their product’s longevity and not in providing accurate dating information. I have reviewed the almanacs from 1906 to 1925 and have found huge discrepancies in introduction dates implied in the almanacs. Using only statements such as “Sold for 70 years” , “on the market for 55 years,” “65 years ago,” etc. which specify a specific date, the almanacs provide possible starting dates as follows:

  Cherry Pectoral: 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842, 1843, and 1844;

  Cathartic Pills: 1844, 1849, 1850, 1851, and 1853;

  Sarsaparilla: 1840, 1847, 1851, 1852, and 1855;

  Ague Cure: 1854, 1855, 1856, 1857, 1860, and 1861

  Hair Vigor: 1862 (only the 1925 almanac provides a date and this same date was placed on the bottle wrappers for the Hair Vigor introduced in 1925.)


From the above examples, it becomes obvious that the advertising text within the Ayer’s American Almanacs is useless for trying to date the introduction of these products.

 [Images are from the collection of Cliff & Linda Hoyt]








jc_ayer-pg-001.jpg

 

CVD Photo of J. C. Ayer

Size: 4.0"H x 2.4"W Circa: 1855-1870


 

James C. Ayer was born in the little town of Groton, Connecticut, in May, 1818. His father had married a sister of Mr. James Cook of this city, then of Groton, and the latter's wife was a sister of the Doctor's father. Mr. Cook came to Lowell when James was a lad, and when the latter was about fifteen years of age he came to this city and went to live with Mr. Cook at his home on Hurd Street. He entered the Lowell schools, and was a classmate of General Butler in the high school. He also studied at Westford Academy. He received instructions in Latin from Rev. Dr. Edson, and when he finished his schooldays he was possessed of a good general education, which, combined with his native energy and shrewdness, enabled him to advance in the world rapidly and surely. When about nineteen years old he bound himself for three years to Mr. Jacob Robbins, with the intention of learning the drug business in that gentleman's store, then situated where Page's saloon now stands on Central Street, two doors above Hurd Street. Before his three years had expired Mr. Robbins went to Europe, leaving young Ayer in charge of the business. It was while thus employed that he compounded his first medicine, the Cherry Pectoral, for pulmonary complaints. This he gave physicians to try, and so satisfactory was it in practice that they gladly prescribed and recommended it to their patients. On the return of Mr. Robbins negotiations were begun, which ended in the purchase by the industrious drug clerk of the stock and good-will of the establishment, so that at the age of twenty-three he was in business on his own account. As an instance of the energy of the young man it may be stated that the money with which he bought the store was loaned him by Mr. Cook and by an uncle in Connecticut to be paid back in five years. In three years the amount borrowed was returned, and younge Ayer was his own master, entirely independent. He occupied Mr. Robbins's old stand for some time, but the demand for the Pectoral, which had now increased to considerable proportions, becoming so great that the little store was unable to contain the necessary machinery for its manufacture, he was forced to seek better accommodations. The Hamilton Company had built the structure still standing on corner of Central and Jackson Streets, and Mr. Ayer hired the building, or a portion of it, and moved his establishment across the street. The Cherry Pectoral became more and more in demand, and his new quarters were unequal to the task of supplying it. So the far-seeing and pushing young man determined to have a building large enough to meet all requirements, and with that end in view erected the large brick block on Jackson Street now adjoining Fiske's Block. This was almost entirely occupied in the preparation of his medicine, one or two stores only being let. The building was erected in 1852, and up to within a few years the large letters announcing the character of the establishment were visible on the eastern end.

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 Early Pontiled J.C. Ayer Cherry Pectoral Bottles

Sizes: 7.3" & 6.1" High, Circa: 1843-1865

jc_ayer-bo-chp_c2_a.jpg

Standard J.C. Ayer Cherry Pectoral Bottles (Lowell Mass.) [Another set exist embossed with Lowell Mass.,U.S.A Circa.1906-1920]

Sizes: 5.5"; 7.3"; 6.2" Circa 1900-1910; 1865-1910; 1898-1910

 

Mr. Ayer was a thorough-going believer in the efficacy of advertising by the means of printers ink, and even in the early years of his life as a medicine manufacturer was a liberal patron of newspapers, besides using other means of extending the reputation of his specific. In 1852 he began the publication of the now familiar almanac, which, being quite a novelty at that time, increased the fame of the Cherry Pectoral, the only preparation he was then selling. [Editor: Innovative advertising was in J.C.'s blood and in 1862 he became one of the primary users of Encased Postage for advertising.] During all this time [the 1850's] he had been experimenting on other medicines, and in 1854 [sic] the sugar-coated pills were first produced. These met a popular want and speedily grew in favor. In 1855 the business had grown to greater proportions than Mr. Ayer cared to manage without assistance, and his brother Frederick, who was then in Syracuse, came to Lowell, and, entering into partnership, the firm became J.C. Ayer & Co. With the arrival of this gentleman began a more extensive system of advertising, and the Doctor, being relieved from the cares of the business to a considerable degree, had more time to experiment. The results of his investigations and experiments were the preparation of the Extract of Sarsaparilla and the Ague Cure. The former was first made in 1855 [sic] and the latter two years later [sic].


jc_ayer-bo-pil_a.jpg

 

Early Pontilled J.C. Ayer Pill Bottle

Size: 2.0" High; Circa: 1853-1870

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Standard J.C. Ayer Pill Bottles and Products

jc_ayer-bo-sar_a1.jpg

Early Pontilled J.C. Ayer Sarsaparilla Bottle

Size: 7.7" H Circa 1852-1870

jc_ayer-bo-sar_b2.jpg jc_ayer-bo-sar_c3.jpg jc_ayer-bo-sar_c4.jpg

Early J.C. Ayer BIM; 1920's variation; and Standard BIM (Note: The pontilled and the early BIM (far left above) both come in a variant where the S of Ayer's is backward.

jc_ayer-bo-agc_a.jpg

Early Pontilled J.C. Ayer Ague Cure Bottle

Size: 7.0" H Circa 1857-1870

jc_ayer-bo-agc_b.jpg jc_ayer-bo-agr_a1.jpg jc_ayer-bo-agr_b.jpg

BMIAL J.C. Ayer Ague Cure; Ague Remedy; & Quinine Glycerin

Size: 7.0" H; 7.0" H; & 6.9" H Circa: 1890-1906; 1906-1920; ??

jc_ayer-bo-hvg_a1.jpg

Early Style J.C. Ayer Hair Vigor Size: 7.4" H Circa 1868-1915

jc_ayer-bo-hvg_b2.jpg    jc_ayer-bo-hvg_s.jpg   jc_ayer-bo-hig.jpg

Colbalt J.C. Ayer Hair Vigor; Sample Hair Vigor; & Hair Invigorator Size: 7.3" H; Sample 3.5" x 1.2"; & 7.3" H Circa: 1915-1923


The manufacture of these medicines of course required more room than the Jackson Street building could furnish, and the firm was obliged to seek a new location. The large building on Market Street was therefore erected in 1857, and the whole establishment moved thither. In this building the manufacture was carried on until 1872, when the old Green School building on Middle Street was purchased and made a portion of the manufactory, and these two structures comprise the present establishment. In 1869 [sic] the Hair Vigor was first produced and since then no other medicine has been compounded, though the firm acquired Hall's Hair Renewer by purchase in 1870. Work has been continued without material interruption in the Market Street building since its erection, with the exception of a few months from August, 1864, when an extensive fire compelled its evacuation. During the interval the goods were made and packed in the old church building, since converted into Barristers' Hall, the office being in the attic. The business, through the thrift, energy, and perseverance of its founder, grew from an insignificant beginning into an establishment employing one hundred persons, sending its manufactures to all parts of the globe, and printing an average edition of eight millions of almanacs annually. It stands today a monument to a shrewd man, and is striking evidence of what energy, directed by good sense, courage, and far-sightedness can produce.


Dr. Ayer held his title by virtue of a degree conferred by the Philadelphia Medical University, dated July 23, 1860.


In 1865 he made a tour of Europe with his family, visiting most of the capitals, and making extensive purchases of pictures, statuary, and costly books. At Munich he purchased the statue of Victory which now adorns Monument Square. This he presented the city, and it was unveiled with much ceremony in 1866.


The ceaseless activity in which Dr. Ayer lived at length began to tell upon his health, and rest was imperatively demanded. Accordingly, he took the advice of his old physician, and in 1874 went again to Europe. But his nature abhorred rest, and he was as active abroad as he would have been at home, and his trip was of little avail. He returned early in 1875, and resumed his occupations with his old-time vigor. But many crowding cares told upon his vigorous constitution, and three years later he died, July 3, 1878, at the age of sixty.


Dr. Ayer was a man of indomitable energy, pluck, and perseverance. To him belongs the credit of making Lowell a familiar word throughout the world, for wherever his medicines went- and no corner of the globe was unvisited-the name of this city was carried. His untiring industry built up an establishment which is a Lowell institution, and there are few citizens who do not feel a certain satisfaction from the fact that his manufactory is located here.


During the summer of 1871 the citizens of Groton Junction signed petitions which were presented at the next session of the legislature, asking that that part of old Groton be set off as a separate town under the name of Ayer in honor of the Doctor. In 1871 he gave the town $10,500 for the purpose of aiding in the erection of a town hall, and subsequently increased the amount to $30,000. The structure was dedicated October, 1876, with appropriate exercises.

[End of the condensed article from the Lowell Courier of July 5, 1878.]

 

At the time of J.C. Ayer's death, the new development of chromolithography made possible the printing of inexpensive, high quality color images. Between 1870 and 1900 chromolithography would dominate advances in advertising with the introduction of trade cards, pamphlets, toys, games, posters, as well as the introduction of color into the old standbys, magazines and newspapers. J.C. Ayer & Co. made copious use of this new medium just as the had previously used almanacs and newspapers.


jc_ayer-si-015.jpg      jc_ayer-si-031.jpg      jc_ayer-si-043.jpg

jc_ayer-si-003.jpg   jc_ayer-si-002.jpg      jc_ayer-si-001.jpg

Single Sheet J.C. Ayer Posters – Sizes Approximately 40"H x 30"W (plus or minus 2") ; Circa: 1888 - 1898

jc_ayer-si-036.jpg


Double Sheet Ayer Poster; Circa 1897c; 60"H X 40"W

ayerhangingsigns.jpg

Ayer Roll-Down Signs All Are 28"H X 14" W; Copyright 1889 & 1890

jc_ayer-si-011.jpg      jc_ayer-si-026.jpg jc_ayer-si-039.jpg


J.C. Ayer Hanging Signs С All are 18.0" H x 13.5" W; Circa from Right to Left: 1893c; 1893c; & 1891c

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Examples of J.C. Ayer Pretty Children Trade Cards Approx. 5.0" x 3.1"; Circa: 1887 - 1899

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Examples of Ayer Stock Cards Circa 1877 - 1888

jc_ayer-tr-054.jpg               jc_ayer-tr-019.jpg   jc_ayer-tr-072.jpg  

Rare J.C. Ayer Trade Cards С

Sizes from Right to Left: 6.8"H x 4.6"W; 4.7"H x 3.1"W; 4.5"H x 3.0" W;

Circa: 1896c; 1886-1899; 1878-1885

jc_ayer-tr-059__a.jpg

 

Rare Set of Ayer's Trade Cards Each Approximately 4.7"H x 3.0"W С Circa 1876-1882

ayer_paper_dolls.jpg

Ayer Paper Doll, Circa 1894c (total size of a dressed doll is approximately 10.0"H x 5.8"W). The doll is shown in the wedding gown in row one above. Row two shows the dress, hat and matching arms for the Wedding gown and also the back of each of these pieces. Row three show the front and back of a second dress, hat, and arms. 



After J.C. Ayer's death the company developed additional products such as Comatone for the hair, Cherry Pectoral Plasters to relieve cold symptoms, and SenopoS (perhaps a laxative, usually found labeled in Portuguese but some English versions are also known). Later, perhaps to lessen the impact of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, Ague Cure became Ague Remedy in 1913. Around 1915 to 1923 the Ayer company experimented with Hair Vigor by introducing a new "blue" bottle and offering Hair Invigorator. The Hair Invigorator box states: "Note: We have changed the name of this preparation, formerly called Ayer's Hair Vigor to Ayer's Hair Invigorator to avoid confusing it with Ayer's Hair Vigor which restores color to the hair." [You may have to read this statement a number of times to not understand it.] Later still, additional new products were introduced such as Helthtone, a stomachic tonic, Gestex, to help digestion, Nose Drops, and Ayer's Tablets, still a laxative.

 

J.C. Ayer & Co. (later just Ayer & Co.) continued to manufacture medicinal products under the management of Frederick Ayer until his retirement around 1893. Frederick Ayer was still president of the company when he died on March 14, 1918. The company continued to operate in Lowell under the management of family members and professional managers until it finally left Lowell around 1943.


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J.C. Ayer Street Car / Bus Sign Size: 11.0" x 21.0" Circa: 1939